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Best of Both Worlds - How Meredith is Preparing Women to Succeed in Engineering

By Reah Nicholson
Chelsea Parkinson in her Duke Energy hard hat.

From a college that was founded on the principles of women breaking down educational barriers, it only seems fitting for Meredith women to want to break down barriers in the engineering field. For just over 10 years, Meredith College has seen its women succeed in the dual degree engineering program - a partnership with N.C. State University. 

Not only have Meredith graduates obtained two degrees from two institutions in five years, but they are excelling in an industry where men are still the majority. The graduates featured on the following pages are thriving in what many call “a man’s world.” And, they would do it all over again.

CHELSEA PARKINSON, ’13, Duke Energy
B.A. Mathematics | B.S. Civil Engineering

When Chelsea Parkinson decided to attend Meredith College and be a part of its dual degree engineering program, she knew she had a tough road ahead – financially and academically. But she was confident that her decision would be worth it and that she would graduate as an engineer.

“This was a big decision for me because I paid for my education with grants, student loans, and help from the Paschal Scholarship,” said Parkinson. “I decided that the benefits of participating in the program outweighed the cost and that I would secure a job when I graduated.”

That is precisely what happened. Upon graduation, she was offered a full-time position as a transmission line engineer for Duke Energy.

In her role, she designs transmission lines, creates job packages for construction to build her projects, communicates with stakeholders to gather information needed for her projects, maintains drawing records, and supports construction and maintenance.

“I can be in the office in meetings and then out in the field working with construction and maintenance, and getting my hands dirty,” said Parkinson.

One of her first projects was designing and building an electric transmission system in the Wilmington, N.C. area. 

“It is a great feeling knowing I have designed and built parts of our transmission
system that will more than likely outlive me,” said Parkinson. “Every time I drive by my first project and look at it, I think ‘I did that.’”

Through the dual degree program, she was able to complete three internships with Progress Energy which led to her full-time position. It didn’t hurt that another Meredith angel paved the way.

“One of the first women to graduate from the program, Amanda Bragg, was an intern at Progress Energy,” said Parkinson. “The recruiters at Progress Energy were interested in hiring more interns with a similar background.”

Parkinson has made strides in the industry, earning the Transmission Operational Excellence Award for learning in the third quarter of 2016. 

As a female engineer at Duke Energy, Parkinson faces many challenges that other women in the field are navigating – some of the same challenges she experienced as a dual degree student. 

“Since I started my career, I’ve observed older male counterparts who are inexperienced in working with women,” said Parkinson. “I have had to overcome this by working hard to prove that I have the same knowledge as male engineers and over time, they adjust.”

KAGURE WAMUNYU, ’13, Uber
B.A. Mathematics | B.S. Civil Engineering

When Kagure Wamunyu applied to Meredith College she had two life goals that she hoped to accomplish - become a civil engineer and help improve transportation in her home country.  

Wamunyu, who resides in Kenya, needed financial assistance in order to attend a university in the United States. The Zawadi Africa Education Fund provided her the opportunity to attend Meredith. With a set plan in mind, Wamunyu joined the dual degree engineering program, knowing that she would be able to graduate with an engineering degree and build a strong academic foundation.

“It’s not just about the books, but developing the skills that are essential to excelling in the engineering field such as being a good speaker, taking on leadership roles, and not shying away from challenges,” said Wamunyu.

The dual degree engineering program allowed Wamunyu to accomplish her goals and more. 

While earning dual degrees, she had the opportunity to intern as a research assistant at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at N.C. State. The experience and knowledge that she gained from that internship helped catapult her career in transportation.

The Kenya native was awarded a full scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated with a Master of Science in city and regional planning with a concentration in transportation planning. Upon graduating with her master’s degree, Wamunyu was able to accomplish her final goal - help improve transportation in her home country. 

She serves as Country Lead for the Kenya division of Uber. She is responsible for maintaining the growth metrics in the country, and guiding policy engagement with stakeholders, the government, and politicians. She also leads the growth and expansion of Uber within the country.

“The impact that my job is having in my country through the economic opportunities that have been created and the development of a mode of travel for Kenyans is very rewarding,” said Wamunyu. 

Wamunyu earned the Women in Transportation Sharon D. Banks Award at the global level for her passion for transportation, and she won the Pamela Mboya Award for her involvement, service, and giving back to Africa. She was recently accepted to the University of Oxford to pursue a Ph.D. in Sustainable Urban Development.

“A women’s liberal arts college provided me with an all-around training that taught me to speak up and stand up,” said Wamunyu. “Meredith taught me to try opportunities, be bold, and take risks, which has allowed me to progress in my career and be at the table.”

KRISTIN WILLIFORD, ’12, Evonik Corporation
B.A. Chemistry | B.S. Chemical Engineering

From the time she started looking at colleges, Kristin Williford knew she wanted to major in a science or engineering-related field, and the idea of matriculating through a brand new program was even more enticing within the welcoming atmosphere of Meredith College.

“The dual degree engineering program was in its early years of development, but it seemed to offer me the best of both worlds,” said Williford. “I had the intimate classroom setting and the chance to pursue both science and engineering studies at one of the top engineering schools in the nation.”

During her time at Meredith, she interned with the research and development engineering team at Ecolab, which allowed her to use her chemistry and engineering background. That experience helped shape her career path.

Williford is a site plant process engineer for Evonik Corporation, a global leader in the specialty chemicals industry. Her responsibilities are spread between three plants, but the main focus of her job is to provide technical support to the site by troubleshooting problems, identifying and executing improvements, and implementing smarter solutions.

“Not only did I get to attend one of the most recognized women’s colleges, but I also got to be a part of a program that encouraged women to reach beyond their comfort zone and become involved in a historically male-dominated industry.”

Working in the field has its challenges, but Williford has been welcomed into the company and into the industry with open arms.

“As a project manager, I am constantly leading teams of people from different departments to get projects completed,” said Williford. “I work in a very diversified field where I find that respect and trust are two key components of the relationships that I build with my peers.”

Being in the dual degree program prepared Williford for an environment where she might be the only female. 

“Meredith’s program taught me how to be a leader, how to manage my time efficiently, and to be a strong woman,” said Williford. “The lessons I learned during my years in the program have been invaluable in my career and have allowed me to succeed as a female in my industry.”

JESSICA PERIANZA GRAJALES, ’16, Accenture
B.A. Mathematics | B.S. Industrial Engineering

For Jessica Perianza Grajales, working in engineering was always a dream, but an even bigger dream was being able to attend an institution of higher learning. As a first generation college student, Grajales faced many challenges and that dream seemed to be slipping from her reach.  Then, her Meredith College acceptance letter arrived in the mail.

“Almost six years later, I find myself the first in my family to graduate from college, and living as an independent woman in Boston,” said Grajales. “To say my life changed may be an understatement.”

Not wanting a typical industrial engineering job, Grajales yearned for a career where she could create and innovate. After graduation she applied for and ultimately accepted a consultant position with Accenture out of Boston, Mass., where she works with companies in all industries.

“Every client has different needs and thus my responsibilities shift,” said Grajales. “I’ve helped with the change management of a system implementation at Hasbro, Inc., and the merging of two large commercial corporations. My responsibilities range from creating presentations, to testing system attributes, to interviewing CEOs. I don’t always know what will come my way.”

A native of Mexico, Grajales felt an immense sense of responsibility to be the best version of herself and was determined to succeed in a rigorous dual degree engineering program. 

“My parents sacrificed everything to allow my brother and me an opportunity for a better future, and my community and friends helped me find private scholarships,” said Grajales. “Receiving degrees from Meredith and N.C. State was the challenge that I refused to quit.” 

One accomplishment that she prides herself on is being the first Latina to graduate from the dual degree program. She hopes to be able to encourage other young Latina women to fulfill their dreams.

“Growing up, I didn’t know many Latinas who had gone to college, much less Latinas obtaining degrees in male-dominated fields,” said Grajales. “I sought to become that for these young women.”

Her biggest challenge now is “having no more finish lines.” When she was in high school, she wanted to go to college and when in college, she wanted to graduate, and upon graduation, she wanted to have a great job. Now, she’s back to the basics. 

“I’m reminded that while I love engineering, I’ve also always had a love for design and community service. Now, I get to create my next goal – and it can be whatever I want it to be.”

CHRISTINA CHURCHILL, ’16, IBM
B.A. Mathematics | B.S. Computer Engineering

Attending Meredith College was never a thought in the mind of Christina Churchill, who dreamed of going to N.C. State and pursuing a degree in engineering. A new possibility was born when she was invited to attend a Junior Leadership Conference at Meredith.

“Finding the dual degree engineering program was the greatest coincidence that ever happened to me,” said Churchill. “Through this program I could get the degree I was after in a learning atmosphere where I knew I could best succeed.”

During her time in the program, she landed a software testing internship with IBM where she served as an intern for three years. That internship led to her finding and starting her dream career. 

The 2016 graduate serves as a client technical sales specialist for IBM, where she builds relationships with clients and creates progress sales opportunities by giving clients a hands-on view of IBM’s new offerings. Her main goal is to help the clients understand the value of IBM solutions for their specific business problems and goals.

“I wanted to use my technical skills in a client-facing role, and I have found that this role is a perfect fit,” said Churchill.

Churchill is new in the field, but she has already made her mark, earning the IBM Global Sales School Distinctive Graduate Award and being named the IBM Communicate for Impact winner. 

Computer engineering is mostly a male-dominated engineering discipline, which can make finding mentors difficult. Churchill is thankful to have connected with many women in the STEM fields through her experiences at Meredith and N.C. State.

“I am fully aware of both the challenges that are still ahead of me and what I can do to help the next generation of women overcome those challenges,” said Churchill. “I now serve as a mentor to other female engineers and do all that I can to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers.”

Because she chose to be a part of the dual degree engineering program, Churchill was able to take advantage of a private, liberal arts education while still experiencing life at a public university. 

“A liberal arts education allowed me to grow in areas outside of mathematics and engineering,” said Churchill. “The program challenged me to grow in ways I never thought possible. I learned to be an advocate for myself and take control of my own destiny and opportunities.”

Watch Christina Churchill's journey through the dual degree engineering program at youtube.com/meredithcollege.

How Meredith Prepares Engineers

Meredith is one of 10 women’s colleges in the country that offers an engineering program. Its dual degree engineering program allows students to graduate with a degree in chemistry or mathematics from Meredith and graduate from one of the nation’s top-ranked engineering programs with a degree in the engineering field of choice at N.C. State.

“The dual degree engineering program is a perk for our students,” said Sasha Ormond, assistant professor of chemistry and director of the dual degree engineering program. “STEM fields in general are dominated by men, and having our women receive an engineering degree together with either math or chemistry shows how strong and determined women are.”

With an increase in women interested in STEM fields, Meredith is taking greater strides to help prepare its graduates for success in the engineering industry. For instance, the Duke Energy Foundation donated $50,000 to the dual degree engineering program for the creation of a discovery lab.

“We’re proud to support this collaboration between Meredith and N.C. State that encourages students to explore new ideas and innovations to better society,” said David Fountain, president of Duke Energy North Carolina.

The discovery lab is a hands-on scientific laboratory where students perform experiments and design projects in a group setting.

“The discovery lab allows these young women the opportunity to work with equipment, machines, tools, and supplies that sometimes their male counterparts have had many years of engaging with just through the typical childhood experience,” said Liz Wolfinger, dean of the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences.

The dual degree program also added an interdisciplinary course taught by Professor of Physics Bill Schmidt. The introductory course engages students in different areas of engineering at an early stage; students use the discovery lab, where they are able to engage with the equipment and the materials.

“My goal is to make students better prepared for a successful transition into the engineering program, particularly with the academic demands of upper level engineering courses,” said Schmidt. “I hope that my students will develop stronger problem solving and communication skills, as well as cultivate an awareness of global engineering issues.”

As part of this new course, students have the unique opportunity to build an electric car within the shop room of the discovery lab. The program purchased an electric car kit, which gives the students the opportunity to assemble, work on, and run experiments and tests on an electric car.

Along with the grant from the Duke Energy Foundation, General Norman Gaddis gave $130,000 in memory of his wife, Hazel Lee Gaddis, to establish scholarships for the program.

The College offered a First Year Experience (FYE) course specifically for women in the dual degree program in the fall of 2016. The course, taught by Wolfinger, allowed students to build community with each other and create five-year academic plans.

Meredith women in the dual degree program experience two colleges in five years. They are Meredith students for three years and N.C. State students for two, while still taking one course at Meredith during those remaining two years. When Meredith students transfer to N.C. State at the completion of their third year, they are guaranteed a spot in the engineering program as long as they meet all transfer and admission requirements.

“Our students see the opportunity to attend a women’s college and take advantage of a small, private liberal arts college, while simultaneously attending a public, landgrant, state, top engineering institution,” said Wolfinger. “It’s phenomenal.”

Although students attend Meredith fulltime during their first three years, they start taking courses at N.C. State during their second year in the program, allowing them to complete two degrees in five years.

“We have found the Meredith dual degree students to be very much prepared for the rigors of engineering courses upon transfer,” said Kim Roberts, coordinator of engineering transfer programs at N.C. State. “When these women enter their junior-level engineering courses, they have already established study groups and relationships with engineering faculty. And they are confident because they know what to expect.”

For graduates, the engineering dual degree program is an opportunity for them to experience two very different environments.

“I wanted to do more than just study engineering,” said Megan Luke, ’17. “I wanted to explore other disciplines, travel, play soccer, and be a part of a small and empowering community. Meredith has allowed me to do all of those things and more. Smaller colleges and larger universities each bring different benefits to the table, and I got to take advantage of all of them – the best of both worlds.”

Luke graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry from Meredith and a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering from N.C. State. And, she had a job lined up before graduation as a process engineer with Ecolab. Another graduate headed for success.


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